Pierre Manent was born in Toulouse, France, in 1949. Raised in a communist household, he was from an early age impressed by the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, and eagerly read political works. His early schooling was also in a left-wing environment, although some students also came from Catholic backgrounds, and his fellow students were marked by intellectual seriousness. During this period Manent was introduced to Catholicism through his teacher Louis Jugnet, and he abandoned communism to become a Catholic.
After his education in Toulouse, Manent enrolled at the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure in Paris. During the student riots of May 1968, Manent further disengaged from the communism that had informed his youth and that dominated the thinking of his fellow students, because he had come to see it as a foolish enterprise. In spite of its political atmosphere, the philosophical education at the Ecole did not address the political questions that interested Manent, and it presented politics not in its own light, but in the light of structural anthropology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. Manent came to think that the real task of his age was to replace the “ideological politicization of thought” with “the elaboration of a political philosophy,” a philosophically serious approach to understanding the nature and proper arrangement of political life.
Manent’s turn toward political philosophy began in earnest when he joined the seminars of Raymond Aron at the rue de Tournon. The seminar, which ran from 1968 to 1978, included many senior scholars—among them Alain Besançon, Jean-Claude Casanova, Pierre Hassner and Claude Lefort. Aron, a great political thinker who had made important contributions to the study of international relations, philosophy and politics, deplored the lack of political sense among many prominent French intellectuals of his day. While Aron directed Manent toward the study of political things, he also sensed Manent’s desire to understand the philosophical foundations of political judgment, and for that reason turned Manent toward the study of Leo Strauss. The appeal of Strauss for Manent came through Strauss’ serious attention to ancient philosophy and his proposal of an alternative, political history for understanding the direction of modernity.
From 1974 to 1992, Manent was Aron’s (and to a lesser extent the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s) assistant at the Collège de France. In 1978, Manent became a cofounder of the liberal anti-communist journal Commentaire, along with Aron and Jean-Claude Casanova, Marc Fumaroli, and Alain Besançon. Around this time, Manent also became associated with a group of intellectuals at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) organized by the historian François Furet. Together with Claude Lefort, Pierre Rosanvallon, Marcel Gauchet and others, Manent sought to articulate a “liberal political science of democratic society” as a response to what they believed to be the totalitarian negation of politics that had marked the twentieth century. The members of the group each sought in his own way to recover the early insights about democratic society that were found in the most thoughtful nineteenth-century observers of Europe and America.
From 1992 until his retirement in 2014, Manent was directeur d’études in the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques Raymond Aron, a multidisciplinary center for political research at EHESS. Author of more than ten books and dozens of articles, Manent is an active writer, lecturer, and commentator on political philosophy and the European political scene.